Getty Images; Robert Cadloff; Nicholas Di Genova; Alex Mcleod; Indigo; Photo illustration by Taylor Shute
Vancouver artist Indigo quit her secretarial job last year, and has been able to support herself thanks in part to income generated on Cargoh.com, a Canadian-based website for buying and selling art. Robyn McCallum’s work was spotted on Eyebuyart.com, prompting her inclusion in an exhibition at Toronto’s Drake Hotel. And Montreal photographer Robert Cadloff makes more than 200 sales a month on Etsy.com, earning “just a little less” than he did in engineering. “Ten years ago, this kind of career change and all the sales wouldn’t have been possible,” says Cadloff. “You needed to schlep your portfolio around to galleries and beg people to exhibit your work. I wasn’t born with that pushy gene.”
Luckily for Cadloff, and a growing number of artists—both emerging and well-known photographers and painters looking to further raise their profile and tap a new market of less-affluent collectors—selling art online is gaining momentum. New Yorker Jen Bekman is credited with starting the trend in 2007 when she launched 20×200.com—her site features limited-edition prints and photographs starting at $20. Others have instituted a similar curatorial policy. Claire Sykes, co-founder of Toronto-based Circuitgallery.com, says she “keeps the quality high” by featuring prints of established Canadian contemporary artists, including Robert Bean and Andrew Wright. “Earlier sites were more like clearing houses,” she says, “and artists were worried, quite rightly, about damaging their reputations by being associated with uncurated spaces and cheaply produced prints.”
Many of those concerns are alleviated with the next-generation online galleries. “To be able to buy a beautiful Andrew Wright [photograph] for $120 is really quite remarkable,” says Canadian Art editor Richard Rhodes, while browsing Circuit Gallery. “And I see Sharon Switzer here, too.” Switzer, a photographer and video artist, is represented by Toronto’s renowned Corkin Gallery. But doesn’t selling inexpensive prints online devalue Switzer’s originals? “No! Our world is changing!” enthused owner Jane Corkin, one of 138 gallerists—the only Canadian—in last month’s inaugural online VIP Art Fair. “Sharon is one of those artists who straddles both worlds.”
Some see the Web market as a game changer. “Art consultants and agents become less relevant,” says Jeff Hamada, the Vancouver artist behind Booooooom.com, which gets more than three million page views a month. “Even mediocre artists who harness the power of Tumblr.com and ffffound.com will feast, while talented artists without URLs will starve. A search-engine-friendly blog can be exponentially more powerful than gallery representation, especially for an emerging artist.”
Someone like Nicholas Di Genova, for instance, who graduated from art school five years ago but already has a piece in the Whitney Museum of American Art. “I knew my kind of art wouldn’t do well in a more traditional gallery format, so I needed to get it out there,” says the Toronto artist, whose work is at Mediumphobic.com. “I made cheaper prints, T-shirts and posters for online sales to get noticed. Now I’m represented by three galleries, including one in New York.” A strong Web presence also launched fellow Toronto artist Alex McLeod: “My biggest validation came when my work was featured on the Kanye West blog—then I got a dealer.”
Not everyone is thrilled with the democratization of art. “It’s a shopping mart for the masses. High art is relationship selling,” says Barrie Mowatt of Vancouver’s Buschlen Mowatt Galleries. “Online sales is for the Costco and Zellers market.” Toronto artist Thrush Holmes got his start selling work on eBay in 2003, but has since changed his tune about direct sales. “It’s cheap to have a ‘buy now’ button on your website,” said Holmes, who opened his own gallery and has American representation. Miriam Shiell, a Toronto art dealer for more than 30 years, is even more critical. “It doesn’t build credibility,” she says. “Everything commercial online is just not part of the fine art market.” Corkin, meanwhile, sees a long-term payoff. “People who buy prints online today,” she says, “will graduate to my gallery one day.”Get our thought-provoking opinions delivered. Subscribe now.